California Supreme Court Hears Argument on Whether Insurance Code Limits UCL Lawsuits Against Insurers

By Samuel Sorich and Larry Golub

On May 8, 2013, the California Supreme Court convened to hear oral argument in Zhang v. Superior Court. The case presents the issue of whether conduct of an insurer, which is related to conduct that would violate California’s Unfair Insurance Practices Act, Insurance Code, §790.03(h) et seq. (UIPA), can be the basis for a private civil cause of action against the insurer under California’s Unfair Competition Law, Business & Professions Code, §17200 et seq. (UCL).

The Court of Appeal in Zhang had ruled in October 2009 that an insurer may be sued by a private citizen for conduct prohibited by the UCL even though the conduct is within the scope of the UIPA. The Supreme Court accepted review of the matter in February 2010.

At the oral argument session, counsel for the insurer relied on the California Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Moradi-Shalal v. Fireman’s Fund Insurance Companies, which held that violations of the UIPA may be prosecuted only by administrative action taken by the Insurance Commissioner, not by civil action by private citizens. Counsel argued that the holding in Moradi-Shalal bars a UCL action against an insurer when the action is based on insurer conduct that is governed by the UIPA.

Counsel for the plaintiff insured responded that Moradi-Shalal does not preclude the insured’s UCL action against the insurer, pointing to language in the Moradi-Shalal decision which noted that “the courts retain jurisdiction to impose civil damages or other remedies against insurers in appropriate common law actions, based on such traditional theories as fraud, infliction of emotional distress, and (as to the insured) either breach of contract or breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.”

We have monitored the Zhang case and other appellate court decisions on the interplay between the UIPA and the UCL in prior blogs. Please see here, here, here and here.

The Supreme Court is required to issue a written opinion in the Zhang case within 90 days of the date of the oral argument, or by August 6, 2013.

The Supreme Court focused on the UCL this week. On May 7, 2013, the Court heard oral argument in Rose v. Bank of America which presents an issue analogous to the issue in Zhang. The question in Rose is whether a cause of action under the UCL can be predicated on an alleged violation of the Truth in Savings Act (12 U.S.C. $4301 et seq.) despite Congress’s repeal of the private right of action initially provided for under that Act.

 

Another Decision Uses the UCL to Circumvent the Moradi-Shalal Restriction as to Private Rights of Action Against Insurers

In a decision issued October 24, 2012, the California Second Appellate District, Division Four became the most recent decision applying California’s unfair competition law, Business & Professional Code, § 17200 et seq. (“UCL”), to bring bad faith claims against insurers, undercutting a key aspect of the decision in Moradi-Shalal v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Cos.

In Ocie E. Henderson v. Farmers Group, Inc., the court analyzed and rejected the determinations of one line of California decisions issued in the years since Moradi-Shalal that precluded a private right of action under the UCL against insurers for violations of California’s Unfair Insurance Practices Act (“UIPA”), Ins. Code, § 790.03(h) et seq. See Textron Financial Corp. v. National Union Fire Ins. Co., and Safeco Ins. Co. v. Superior Court, abrogated on other grounds by Cel-Tech Communications, Inc. v. Los Angeles Cellular Telephone Co.

Henderson instead followed the same reasoning applied by the Fourth Appellate District, Division Two in Zhang v. Superior Court (review granted Feb. 10, 2010).

Zhang held that a cause of action for violation of the UCL based on conduct that allegedly violates the UIPA is not an end-run around Moradi-Shalal so long as that conduct also supports a claim against the insurer for something other than a UIPA violation. 

The conduct at issue in Zhang involved alleged fraudulent misrepresentations and misleading advertising regarding coverage. 

The conduct at issue in Henderson involved denial of property damage claims based on the failure to submit a proof of loss and late notice.  

Both Zhang and Henderson rely on State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. v. Superior Court, which held that a breach of contract or bad faith cause of action could serve as a predicate for a UCL claim even if the conduct supporting the claim also constitutes a violation of the UIPA. 

Additional decisions following Zhang include: Hughes v. Progressive Direct Ins. Co., review granted September 28, 2011, but deferred pending consideration and disposition of Zhang; Williams v. Prudential Ins. Co., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14566 (N.D. Cal. 2010); Burdick v. Union Sec. Ins. Co., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 121768 (C.D. Cal. 2009).  

In Sanders v. Choice Mfg. Co., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 137365 (N.D. Cal. 2011), the district court refused to apply Zhang because of its unpublished status but nonetheless applied reasoning similar to Zhang in holding that plaintiff’s allegations regarding untrue and deceptive statements alleged more than just a violation of the UIPA because the conduct also involved allegations of the sale of insurance without first obtaining a license or certificate. 

Despite these holdings, other recent decisions in the district courts continue to apply broadly Moradi-Shalal and Textron but have left open their decisions pending the California Supreme Court’s determination in Zhang. See Wayne Merritt Motor Co. v. N.H. Ins. Co., 2011 U.S. Dist LEXIS 122320 (N.D. Cal. 2011) (dismissal without prejudice of UCL claim based on allegations that the insurer misrepresented coverage by “burying” a limitation of liability clause in the endorsement); Willbanks v. Progressive Choice Ins. Co., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 128144 (E.D. Cal. 2010) (dismissed without prejudice of UCL claim based on unfair claims practices).

While Zhang has been fully briefed since June 2010, oral argument has yet to be set. Presumably, the Supreme Court’s long-awaited decision in Zhang will bring certainty to these conflicting decisions and reconcile the interplay of the UCL and the UIPA.

We will continue to report on the developments in this significant area of insurance litigation.

 

Court of Appeal Hands UCL Win to Plaintiffs, Shrinks Impact of Moradi-Shalal

A recent ruling by the California Court of Appeal in a UCL action will likely lead to a showdown in the California Supreme Court over the reach of Moradi-Shalal v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Cos., 46 Cal. 3d 287 (1988), the ruling that barred private actions seeking to enforce California’s Unfair Insurance Practices Act, namely, Insurance Code Section 790.03, et seq. (“Section 790.03”). 

For years plaintiffs’ lawyers and insurers have grappled over the question of whether causes of action for violation of California’s “Unfair Competition Law” (Business and Professions Code Section 17200, et seq., or “UCL”) may allege conduct that violates Section 790.03. Insurers have generally prevailed in demonstrating that to allow a UCL suit to include thinly-disguised Section 790.03 violations would be an impermissible circumvention or end run around Moradi-Shalal. The California Court of Appeal supported the insurers’ position on this issue in Textron Financial Corp. v. National Union Fire Ins. Co., 118 Cal. App. 4th 1061 (2004).

Now, the Fourth Appellate District, in Zhang v. Superior Court (October 29, 2009), has rejected Textron, and held that because the UCL allows a plaintiff to allege unfair, unlawful, and misleading conduct against businesses generally (including insurers), the fact a plaintiff asserts what appear to be violations of Section 790.03 is not necessarily an end run around Moradi-Shalal.

In Zhang the plaintiff sued California Capital Insurance Company for breach of contract and bad faith, alleging the insurer improperly handled a claim for repair of property after a fire at his business. Zhang included a UCL count, which incorporated all the allegations that the insurer engaged in conduct that was barred by Section 790.03, but also alleged the insurer had acted unfairly by engaging in false and deceptive advertising, suggesting it would provide coverage in the event of a loss, when it had no intent to do so. 

The insurer demurred, arguing that per Moradi-Shalal, there is no private cause of action for a Section 790.03 violation, and that using the UCL to in effect assert a Section 790.03 violation is a circumvention of Moradi-Shalal, as confirmed by Textron

The trial court granted the insurer’s demurrer, but the court of appeal reversed, holding Moradi-Shalal did not bar the UCL claim. Acknowledging the contrary holding of the other court of appeal decision in Textron, the Zhang court nonetheless pointed to the California Supreme Court’s ruling in Manufacturers Life Ins. Co. v. Superior Court, 10 Cal. 4th 257 (1995), in which the high court rejected the idea that Section 790.03 was intended to “displace existing rights and remedies for unlawful business practices” in the insurance industry, among them the UCL. The court of appeal said it took from Manufacturers Life that there is no reason to treat insurers differently from other businesses when it comes to actions under the UCL, except as required by Moradi-Shalal.

Thus, the court of appeal concluded, if a plaintiff sues for conduct that is prohibited by Section 790.03, but not otherwise prohibited, then a plaintiff may not advance that claim under the UCL. Where, however, as in Zhang, a plaintiff alleges unlawful, misleading and untrue conduct that is expressly within the parameters of the UCL, the suit may proceed on that claim.

In response to those who make the “end run” argument, the Zhang court observed in a footnote that, as established in State Farm v. Superior Court, 45 Cal. App. 4th 1093 (1994), a UCL plaintiff is not entitled to seek compensatory and punitive damages, only restitution and injunction.

Given its conflict with Textron, the Zhang case will likely be the subject of an active effort to convince the California Supreme Court to grant a petition for review in Zhang (or request to depublish) – perhaps with the support of numerous amici.